Age Well

Seniors at the Friendly House exercise during a stretch-and-tone class in 2010. Exercises for the legs can help improve your balance and avoid falls.

When snowflakes and freezing rain fall, so do people, and the falls can be dangerous.

Each year, 2.8 million older Americans – 65 and older -- are treated in emergency departments because of a fall injury. More than 800,000 are hospitalized because of fall injury. The most common fall-related injuries are head injuries, including brain trauma, and fractures, including hips.

Falls are the No. 1 cause of accidental death in those 65 and older and the No. 1 cause of hospitalizations.

The direct medical costs for fall injuries are $31 billion annually.

The death rate from unintentional falls among older adults has been rising steadily since 2005.

Falls can be related to a medical condition, such as vision problems, lower body weakness, prescription medications and balance issues. Most falls occur because of combination of risk factors.

There are simple precautions older adults can take to prevent a potentially tragic fall.

Here are suggestions from Genesis Emergency Department medical director David Dierks, D.O., and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• When you visit your primary care provider, have the provider for an evaluation of your risk for falling and ask what you can do to lower risk.

• Have the doctor explain the possible side effects of medications you are taking. Those medications may create side effects that increase your risk of falling.

• Exercise to make your legs stronger and improve your balance.

• Have your eyes checked to make sure you have the prescription you need.

• Make your home safer with grab bars inside and outside your tub and shower.

• Put railings on both sides of stairs.

• Make sure you have enough light in your home.

• Be aware of trip hazards in your home, including furniture, rugs and pets.

• When you are outside, make sure your footwear fits properly.

• Use footwear with sufficient traction. Rubber retains its “grip’’ in colder temperatures. Shoes with leather soles are more slippery.

• Use commercial products to melt ice and maintain safety of driveways, walks and stairs.

• Be aware of the safest walking routes in your neighborhood.

• Use handrails when they are available.

• Take small “duck’’ steps with toes turned inward to maintain better balance.

• Consider commercial grit paint for concrete surfaces.

• When needed, use aids such as canes, walking sticks, or walkers.

• When you leave the house in winter, make sure someone knows you have left. Give them an estimated time when you will return.

• Check on older neighbors and family friends frequently.

• If you go out in severe weather, carry a mobile phone, whistle or noise-making device to call for help if you fall and are injured. The panic alarm on your car keys can be used as a signaling device.

Because the risk and possible harm from falls is very real, fear of falling can cause an older person to become more sedentary and to avoid social activities. Physical activities and socializing with others help us maintain health.

Overcoming the fear with the help of precautions can help you stay active, maintain your physical health and prevent future falls.

Craig Cooper is the Senior Communications Specialist for Genesis Health System.

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